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Child maintenance: what rate is right?

Supporting children financially

When couples with children separate, one of their primary concerns, whether they are married or not, is ensuring that the children are supported financially. In legal terms, this is known as child maintenance.

When should child maintenance be paid?

Child maintenance should, in most situations, be paid for minors (those aged 18 and younger). Usually, the “non-resident parent” pays money to the parent who is the main carer of the child “resident-parent”. The resident parent will be responsible for the child’s day-to-day expenses (housing, food, clothing) and regular child maintenance payments from the other parent ensures that both parents are contributing to these expenses.

Child maintenance can also be paid in circumstances where care of the child is shared between the parents (equally or roughly), but where their incomes differ.  In this case the higher earning parent would be expected to pay some maintenance to the other so that the child can enjoy a consistent  level of life style.

How long is a child dependant?

There is no law taking into account financial support for young adults.   Maintenance is typically paid until the child is aged 16 or has finished full time secondary education.  The reason being that once the child leaves full time education they will get a job and become financially independent.  However, it is commonly agreed, and ordered by court, that if the child goes on to tertiary education (i.e. university) there should be a review.  Wording is not normally any more detailed than this as unless the child is about to embark on a university degree after their A levels, parents simply do not know what their child’s future education will be, whether either of them will be in a financial position to support them and if so to what extent.

What rate is fair?

It is natural that people pass on advice to each other when going through similar experiences, however it can unwittingly cause confusion when it comes to what is an appropriate amount of maintenance.  Clients (whether the payer or payee), regularly ask queries such as “how can that be a fair sum? It seems low, my friend Jessica receives over £200 a week for her daughter” or “that’s too high, how come my cousin Sam only has to pay £50 a week for his two sons?”

The simple answer is that maintenance is based on the particular circumstances of each family, it is therefore very unlikely that any two scenarios are the same.  The court uses the guidelines set down by The Child Support Agency 2000, which apportions: 15% of net income for the first child, 20% for the second and 25% for the third and subsequent children if the paying parent has no other children.  This is a useful starting point for any separating couple.  The rate however is checked for fairness and the overall arrangement depends on all the circumstances:  does the payer have any other dependent children; what standard of living was the child accustomed to during the relationship; and does the paying party have any debts that would affect affordability.

Orders can be made regarding school fees, child care costs, and activities both in and out of school.

The law in the UK has developed and it follows the Child Support (2008) Guidelines.  The maintenance calculation is based on the payer’s gross income.  The UK also takes into account the number of nights a child spends with the non-resident parent and maintenance is reduced accordingly.  Whilst the Jersey courts have not yet adopted these guidelines they are a useful reference check as to fairness.

There are occasions where maintenance can only be paid at a nominal level i.e. £5 per month.  This could be when an individual is not in paid employment even if they are receiving certain benefits such as incapacity.  The level of child maintenance may be adjusted over time if circumstances change, e.g. if the payer loses a job, gets better work or is no longer unable to work.

Scenario

Steve and Heather have separated; they were not married.  They have two children, Bradley and Katie aged 17 and 5 respectively.  Steve works full time and earns £70,000 net per annum, and Heather works part time and earns £22,000 per annum.  Both children, by agreement of their parents, live with Heather and see Steve a couple of nights a week and more during school holidays.  Bradley is going to complete his A levels at Victoria College and intends to go to university after that.  Katie is in reception at Beaulieu and is starting ballet classes soon.

Solution

Steve is the non-resident parent so the starting point is that he pays 20% of his net income to Heather by way of monthly maintenance, equating to £1,166 pcm.  This maintenance should reduce to 15% of his net income when Bradley finishes secondary school and there should be a review as to what contributions both parents will make towards Bradley’s university costs.  As Steve is the higher earner, he would pay the children’s school fees, Katie’s ballet club and at least 50% of other extras such as health costs and school costs including trips and uniform.  Steve and Heather agree that Heather will use any grant available for Bradley and Steve will support him through his first degree.  On Steve’s salary and expenses this maintenance is affordable for him.

The parents record this agreement in a formal consent order, filed and approved by court.

Change in circumstances

Steve is sadly made redundant four years after the parties reached their agreement but secured new employment without any gap.  His new salary is £40,000 per annum net.   Bradley has completed his degree, is in full time employment and has moved into a flat with a couple of friends.  Katie, now aged 9 is spending a roughly equal time with each parent.  Heather returned to work full time as is earning £36,000 per annum net.

Steve as the paying party should promptly apply for a variation of the original consent order, if he and Heather cannot agree to a variation between themselves.

Solution

Steve and Heather attend mediation with Family Mediation Jersey to reach an agreement.  Bradley is no longer a dependant so no maintenance is paid for him.  The care arrangement in respect of Katie is shared and the parents have very similar incomes so neither pays maintenance to the other.  All expenses relating to Katie (i.e. school and health) are shared equally and each parent pays for Katie when she is in their care.

The parents file an updated consent order with court recording the new arrangement.

Viberts can advise separating couples on child maintenance arrangements. We offer this as standard for any divorcing couples who have children. We try to encourage an agreement that is fair and reasonable and has the children’s best interests at heart, so as to minimise any negative affect on them.

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